Genaro K. Lý Smith was born in Nha Trang, Vietnam in 1968. He has earned first place in the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Fellowship competition, received both the Louisiana Division of the Arts Artist Fellowship and mini-grant, second place in the Poets & Writers Exchange Program, and second place for his short story “Dailies” in 2008 from the Santa Fe Writers Program. He currently resides in Ruston with his wife Robyn and their two daughters, Layla and Naomi. He has been teaching literature, composition, and creative writing at Louisiana Tech University since 1999.
The reeducation of Yên, Lý Loc’s youngest wife
What they say is like a promise
I can hold in my hands,
like the locusts I plucked off lily pads,
cupped them to keep
for my own enjoyment as a little girl.
For days, weeks even, they become comfortable
to the heartbeat in my palms
where they want to stay.
This is how I take their words
as I actually raise my hands before me,
convinced I can see the liberty they speak of
in the soft, smooth whiteness of my palms,
see pride in not being enslaved by foreigners,
but there are only severed barbed wire-patterned lines
that only connect when I cup my hands,
the same lines Mother told me meant I was free.
I stare at the lines, seek the answers
in why our husband was taken from us,
from this house, bruised and bound for resisting
the new government’s practice
to right his mind of all his lustful wrongs.
They speak of the impossible task they accomplished—
defeat the West, have them fly or boat back
to their own continents, emasculated and clothed in guilt,
the new uniform they must have tailored
to fit them as familiarly and naturally as the bones
they have worn since birth; sent them home
to sit with their families at dinner time
to be served shame and embarrassment as their main meal,
the very things they have a hard time
cutting with silverware polished by dutiful wives,
and an even harder time swallowing
only to feel it harden
before settling in their stomachs.
At night when they sleep, they toss and turn,
not from getting reacquainted with beds they left behind
for the war, reacquainted with their wives’ warm bodies,
the places where they used to fit into each other;
nor from the nightmares of close mortar rounds,
the blasts a constant ringing in their ears
of what hell will forever sound like,
or their limbs lost from sniper fire,
or head traumas that erased all memory of speech and movement,
but from waiting for shame and embarrassment to digest,
so they can pass them from their bodies
into toilet bowls or in the woods.
Sometimes they soil their sheets and blankets.
They are apologetic, insisting, It’s the war that made them
this way, that it had never happened before,
that it won’t happen again.
Their wives furl wet sheets and blankets
assuring their husbands—who stand idly by, sometimes
in corners, pajamas soaked, head lowered like children—
that everything will be okay, everything will be normal again
as they hide their husbands’ humiliation
should their children wake in the middle of the night
for a glass of water, or the trip to the bathroom, to ask,
“What’s going on? Who wet the bed?”
What is hardest is not the passing, the secretion
of shame and embarrassment,
but finding the courage to raise their heads,
address the awaiting eyes at the dinner table:
that even while clenching forks and knives,
their hands are still empty
of the locust they could never keep,
could never hold long enough.